A man, his wife and a bar soap he has kept since 1964

Kimani Kibiku and his wife Wanjiru Kimani at their home in Kabete,

Kimani Kibiku and his wife Wanjiru Kimani at their home in Kabete.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

When you first hear the story of Kimani Kibiku, a 72-year-old resident of Kiambu County who has kept a souvenir piece of bar soap for 58 years, your initial reaction may be a mix of apprehension and curiosity – much like this writer.

Kiahuria village in Kabete Constituency, where Mr Kimani was born and raised, is where we find him and his wife Jane Wanjiru – both retired civil servants – on a bright and hot afternoon in their modest home.

As we settle beneath the shadows of an avocado tree in their compound, we are yearning to have one question answered: what is it about this 58-year-old piece of soap? It is almost as old as the republic of Kenya.

“May I begin by noting that this is simply more than just about a piece of soap for me,” narrates the former human resource trainer. “This is more about the lifestyle most people my age led back then, and the memories that this simple piece evokes. And there are lots of them.”

He goes on: “In contrast with current times, growing up in the 50s and 60s was quite simplistic, if I may regard it as such. Many children, I among them, went to school just for the sake of it. We helped with farm work where most of our sustenance came from, and we grew up in a very social environment.”

Kimani is the sixth born in a family of six boys and two girls.

He notes that life was characterised by economic hardships as money was scarce. To add to their woes, they lost their father when he was still a child in the late 1950s. But he is quick to note that his is not a sad tale.

“Luckily, my eldest brother, the firstborn, had managed to finish school and got a job as a teacher, and so he took up the role of catering for us. And thus comes the story about soap. You see back then, some commodities one may take for granted today were quite scarce. What you could not get from the farm, like soap and cooking fat, you had to buy. Earning a shilling being such a task, these products used to be quite precious,” he says.

Kimani notes that his brother would do monthly shopping for them, and among the things he would buy would be a bar of soap, marked into five equal pieces.

They would then each receive a piece, which was to last them a whole month till the next payday. This piece was to be used for all their cleaning needs, and it was upon them to know how to make it last.

For comparison, Kimani notes that this bar produced by Unilever (East Africa Industries back then) would cost less than a shilling. A 900-gram Sunlight bar soap from the same company costs Sh350 today.

“When I was 14 years old, I managed to save a piece for a rainy day, and as it turned out, that day never came. After a while, I had thoughts to just use it, but then curiosity kicked in and I thought: what if I kept this to remind me of my childhood days? I marked the date I had received the soap and put it in a small box. Almost six decades later, here we are,” he says.

Wanjiru, who got married to Kimani in 1981, says they met at work and it’s there that their relationship sprouted.

When we enquire whether her husband’s sentiments resonate with hers, she is in total agreement.

“A bar?” she poses. “We used to buy a piece at a time, for the whole family.”

“To give you perspective”, she adds, “we acquired a pick-up when we got married and started dairy farming. We would take the vehicle to work every day, and on Saturday we would go looking for fodder for our animals. I remember very clearly that we would buy fuel worth Sh400 and it would last us almost an entire month.”

In a small box full of souvenirs, Wanjiru also pulls out a receipt dated July 7, 1990 for a 13kg gas cylinder refill. The indicated cost is Sh172.25.

The same cylinder costs about Sh3,300 to refill today. By all means, these prices are ludicrous in contrast, and makes one who did not experience such a life wonder.

But besides all this talk about the cost of living, Kimani did mention that this was more about a way of life.

So, are there lessons to be learnt or is it just chinwags to captivate readers of younger generations?

“The reason I have kept that piece of soap for so long is because it reminds me of a life that, despite certain difficulties, is one to be desired. It is a life where one person’s success was shared and celebrated by all. A time when families were much more united and where I would get to visit my kin and interact with my cousins. A life when our society as a whole was more united. Something that may be somewhat lacking in our society today,” says Kimani.

Kimani and Wanjiru also both agree that despite the scarcities of their childhood, or perhaps because of them, they got to learn valuable lessons about life, responsibility and management; lessons that moulded them for the better, and that instilled discipline in them.

“Happiness was also easier to find back then,” Wanjiru adds lightly. “Something as simple as chapati used to make us very excited as we would only have them on Christmas, and in my opinion, it made the celebrations all the more meaningful and impactful. While I appreciate that people now lead better lifestyles in terms of being able to afford such basic commodities, I do miss how much more we appreciated life in those days.”

On the downside, however, Kimani says that growing up in such a strict environment might have made him timid, and he admits that it took him a long time to be confident in his own capabilities as a person.

“Parents never used to appreciate us when we did well, and any time you were summoned you knew it was to be reprimanded. This especially eroded my self-confidence and self-esteem. It also affected my parenting as I wanted my children to have all the things I could not, and that gives rise to the possibility of ‘spoiling’ your children,” he says.

Wanjiru is of contrary opinion, however. She believes that the strict discipline of her childhood is much needed in today’s society.

“While I strongly believe that parents need to be friends with their children and show them love and appreciation, I also believe that there is something like too much freedom. A parent should always be a parent first to avoid the moral decay of our society,” she says.

After an hour-long engagement with Kimani and Wanjiru as they recount captivating tales of their childhood, it is time to say our goodbyes and parting remarks. But not before sharing a cup of tea and an avocado sandwich, upon Wanjiru’s unwavering insistence.

Say what you might about Kimani and his decades-old piece of soap, but there are a few precious takeaways from this couple’s story. There is a joy and simplicity to life to be envied. And what is our history, anyway, if not bits and pieces from the past that someone decided to hold on to and pass it down generations?